Notable Books

Notable Books 4

Edited by Bib Leo Phyle – Planet Earth

Two recently published books are a notable contrast in content and relevance. We call both to the attention of our readers.

Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. The Secret Doctrine Commentaries: The Unpublished 1889 Instructions. Transcribed and annotated by Michael Gomes. The Hague: I.S.I.S. Foundation [International Study-centre for Independent Search for Truth (Point Loma Theosophical Society, Blavatskyhouse)], 2010. Pp. xvi + 687. $103.10.

This book will appeal mainly to serious students of Theosophy, and for them it is invaluable. But even Theosophical tyros will find much of interest between its covers, and browsing through its index will yield notable insights into HPB’s way of thinking and her remarkable views into the Ancient Wisdom.

During the first half of 1889, after the 1888 publication of HPB’s Secret Doctrine, she met more or less weekly with various followers for discussions, questions, and answers about things related to that book. A stenographer recorded the sessions; extensively edited versions of the records of the first twelve of those meetings (more than half of the total) were published as Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge. The present volume is a transcription, with only minimal editing, of all the available records (which came to light in 1992). The previously published volumes had taken extensive liberties with the stenographic records, doubtless in the interest of converting the free flow of discussion (which is often disjoined and elliptical) into something more coherent and readable, but in the process losing both the tone and sometimes the exact sense of what was said. No record has been published before of the meetings during the last three months of the sessions.
The only way to access fully and accurately those 1889 discussions would be to get a peek into the akashic records. As that is not feasible for most of us, the next best thing is Michael Gomes’s book. It should supersede the old Transactions, which are both incomplete and tarted up (to use a Briticism for “showily redone”. This volume is destined to occupy a place on any Theosophical student’s shelf of indispensible books on basic Theosophy. It is already a classic.

Gowins, Phillip. Practical Sufism: A Guide to the Spiritual Path Based on the Teachings of Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2010. Pp. xviii + 219. $15.95.

This book is directed to general readers and holds little of direct concern to Theosophists, although Sufism is arguably a theosophical form of Islam. In this context, “theosophical” with a lower-case “t” refers, not to the Theosophical Society, but to any of the multiple articulations of the Ancient Wisdom found in all ages and all over the globe.

Sufism is a collection of mystical traditions within Islam that orthodox Muslims regard as heretical. The Sufi view is that it is the esoteric teachings given by Muhammad to those capable of receiving them. One of the principle exponents of Sufism in the West was the Indian Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), to whose tradition the author of this book owes allegiance. The book, however, gives more insight into its author than into the details of Sufi esotericism, being more or less in a 1970s feel-good style.

Sufism is highly poetic. Anyone who wants insight into Sufi mysticism would be well advised to read the poetry of the Persian Sufi known simply as Rumi.

Phillip Gowins

In the opinion of your editor, the best English translations of Rumi are those of Coleman Barks, a distinguished poet himself who has appeared on Bill Moyers’s PBS program, and some of whose Rumi translations appeared in the magazine of the Theosophical Society in days of yore.

Notable Books 2

Edited by Bib Leo Phyle – Planet Earth

"Most books, like their authors, are born to die; of only a few books can it be said that death hath no dominion over them; they live, and their influence lives forever." – J. Swartz

A Theosophically immortal book is The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, and a new work to extend its dominion is the one John Algeo reviews here:

Mills, Joy. Reflections on an Ageless Wisdom: A Commentary on "The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett." Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2010 (July release). Pp. xx + 543 + index.

The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett is the quintessential foundation document of Theosophical literature. It was preceded by HPB's Isis Unveiled (a preliminary clarion call) and followed by her culminating books The Secret Doctrine, Key to Theosophy, and Voice of the Silence. But The Mahatma Letters is the earliest and most authoritative statement of distinctive Theosophical teaching. All dedicated Theosophists should know this work. Yet attaining such knowledge involves a problem.

The letters of the Mahatmas were personal communications to one individual. Their content includes universal truths as well as particular information highly localized in both time and space. Consequently understanding these letters is a challenge for present-day readers. That challenge is rendered far less daunting by Joy Mills's work. She has spent a lifetime studying and lecturing on the Letters, along with the rest of the Theosophical canon, and in this volume she has produced a vade mecum that every serious Theosophical student should have next to a copy of The Mahatma Letters, whose access it will greatly ease.

Joy's style is like a conversation with her readers, inviting them to recognize the relevance of the past to the present, with an emphasis on the application of the Letters to their own lives. Her text is appreciative (the word "beautiful" echoes throughout the volume) and raises questions prompting readers to consider the mysteries of life as well as the circumstances in which the Mahatmas wrote their letters to Sinnett. The best summary of this volume is in Joy's own words from her conclusion (pp. 537-8):

"The letters are redolent with the atmosphere of another world, a domain of consciousness that calls us onward to deeper and more comprehensive knowing. As we read with growing inner perception, we may become aware of stepping even momentarily 'out of our world into theirs,' glimpsing however dimly a realm of truth and beauty unparalleled in our ordinary existence. For a little while, we seem to walk with them, Masters of wisdom and compassion, Mahatmas, great souls, Brothers, knowers of 'every first truth,' who are ever sending out upon the world blessings of light and love and the benediction of their presence. . . .

"Every rereading of the letters seems to open a little wider the door to their world. The letters speak of timeless truths. They tell of a road not easy to travel, a way of life at times uncomfortable in its demands on time and energy, a commitment of mind and heart to the noblest ideal: the realization of human solidarity, Universal Brotherhood."

This volume is a magnificent culmination to Joy's own lifetime of study and commitment, a crowning achievement to all her service and teaching. This volume can also guide others onto the same path she has walked. The extent to which it succeeds in doing so will depend on the willingness of those of us who read it to follow its lead in pointing out the way to the ultimate realization that inspired both the outer and the inner founders of the Theosophical Society.

Joy Mills

Edited by Bib Leo Phyle – Planet Earth

"A good book on your shelf is a friend that turns its back on you and remains a friend".  Author Unknown

Notable Books are not limited to new ones. Among the editor's favorite somewhat older volumes that are classics of their kind are the following:


Hoeller, Stephan A. Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing. Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2002. Pp. xii + 257. The author is a bishop in the modern Gnostic Church and so writes as both a scholar with deep knowledge of the subject and as an insider with a sympathetic view of a movement that is often misunderstood. He emphasizes that, as the term naming it indicates, Gnosticism is about "knowing," not the outer world around us, but the inner world of our higher selves.

Hoeller, Stephan A. The Fool’s Pilgrimage: Kabbalistic Meditations on the Tarot. 2nd ed. with accompanying CD narrated by Stephen Hoeller. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2004. 1st ed. 1975. Pp. xviii + 132. Bishop Hoeller's knowledge, both inner and outer, is wide-ranging. In this volume he deals with two important systems of esoteric symbolism and relates them to each other: the pack of cards known as the Tarot and associated with the Gypsies and the Hebrew Kabbalah, which is Jewish Theosophy using scriptural interpretation to expound an emanative view of the cosmos.

Abdill, Edward. The Secret Gateway: Modern Theosophy and the Ancient Wisdom Tradition. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2005. Pp. xiii + 241. This volume is, in the editor's view, the best current introduction to Theosophical thought. Theosophists are often puzzled about what book to recommend to inquirers to give them a good overview of the ideas and ideals of the Theosophical movement that will not puzzle them but keep their attention with its clarity and applications. This is that book.

Notable Books 3

Edited by Bib Leo Phyle – Planet Earth

This  book will be of interest to readers of Theosophy Forward:

Ervast, Pekka. The Divine Seed: The Esoteric Teachings of Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books; Theosophical Publishing House, 2010. Pp. xvi + 135. (September release.)

The author of this book, Pekka Ervast (1875-1934) was a leading Finnish mystic, Theosophist, and authority on the esoteric meaning of the Finnish epic, the Kalevala.

Traditional scholarship on the life of Jesus tends to fall into one of three camps by treating Jesus (a) as a divine incarnation, in the orthodox theological tradition, (b) as a historical, human teacher in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, or (c) as a mythic expression of the hero with a thousand faces in the Joseph Campbell tradition. The Theosophical approach is different from all of those; it regards Jesus as an evolutionarily evolved human being who was a member of the band of human "elders" who have committed themselves to guiding and inspiring our species on the journey along their path to self-realization.

Ervast's book is an exploration of certain gospel subjects from a Theosophical perspective. In particular, it examines Jesus's parables, his teachings about the problem of evil, five commandments from the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord's Prayer, the distinction between Jesus and the Christ, and the Holy Communion—all from an esoteric point of view.

Notable Books 1

Edited by Bib Leo Phyle – Planet Earth

"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed whole, and some few to be chewed and digested." — Francis Bacon, 1597

The purpose of this feature is to call your attention to books worth chewing and digesting. In this first installment, we look at several notable books published last year, which are both well-worth a reader's attentive chewing and digesting.

Among last year's books that are notably worth chewing and digesting is this one, reviewed here by John Algeo:

Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. The Secret Doctrine. Abridged and annotated by Michael Gomes. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2009. Pp. xxviii + 255.

Why is any abridgment of this classic and basic Theosophical work needed? That such abridgments are needed is suggested by the fact they are nothing new. One was made by Katharine Hillard in 1907 and another by Elizabeth Preston and Christmas Humphreys in 1966. But every half century, on average, needs its own abridgment to keep pace with changing times and expectations. Michael Gomes's recently published work is clearly the abridgment for our day.

The Secret Doctrine, albeit the most fundamental and authoritative exposition of Theosophy's teachings about the origin and purpose of the cosmos and the human species, is undeniably a very difficult book to read. First published in 1888, it is partly in nineteenth-century style, which is more prolix and complex than that favored today (extensively downsized and simplified on the model of USA Today and the tabloids). But the SD also embodies Blavatsky's personal style, which is digressive, allusive, and esoteric. HPB was a woman of extensive knowledge and wide-ranging interests, which she freely indulges in the expectation that her readers will be challenged to keep up with her kaleidoscopic prose. Moreover, Blavatsky quite reasonably related what she had to say on the great eternal questions to what philosophy and science were saying about those same questions in her time. Blavatsky's Theosophy is, in a sense, timeless. But our philosophy and science are all very much time-bound. So her discussions of the latter are often now only of historical curiosity. These matters of style and timeliness in Blavatsky's text make it unnecessarily difficult for the present-day reader.

The need for a new, current abridgment is clear. And Michael Gomes has provided it. His work is the best entry to The Secret Doctrine for twenty-first century readers. Gomes captures the essential points of the book and highlights many notable features, such as the following: HPB was a remarkable woman with a wide-ranging curiosity about the mysteries of life. As J. Jeffrey Franklin writes in The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire (Cornell University Press, 2008, p. 65): "Blavatsky blazed the trail that would be followed by Sir James Frazer, Jessie Weston, and Joseph Campbell, though they might not choose to acknowledge her."

HPB stated the most basic truths of the Wisdom and so is the Mother of us all; yet her magnum opus also incorporates a good deal of irrelevancies, some based on now-outmoded ideas and some fanciful extrapolations, most of which have been wisely omitted from this abridgment. HPB could, on occasions, write with high inspiration (doubtless when she herself was so inspired); yet the bulk of her prose is rhetorically a mess because she is often disorganized, repetitious, and unclear. Her work needs to be sorted out so that lesser mortals, like most of us, can understand it without racking our brains. This abridgment does that for us.

HPB was indeed a sphinx, and a marvelous one, deserving our awe and appreciation. But like the question of the sphinx, her writing can sometimes be a puzzle. So Michael Gomes deserves our gratitude for producing this excellent clue to unraveling the puzzle of The Secret Doctrine.

The editor believes that the best new spiritual book of last (or many another) year was this:

Ravindra, Ravi. The Wisdom of Patañjali's Yoga Sutras: A New Translation and Guide. Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light Press, 2009. Pp. xvi + 221. The Yoga Sutras are the ancient and classic exposition of Yoga. Those who study them are often flummoxed by their arcane, elliptical language. Yet anyone seriously interested in Yoga must eventually deal with the Sutras. Ravindra's book contains the most lucid and informative translation of the Sutras this editor has ever seen. Most of the volume is commentary on them, verse by verse. And that commentary is infused with the author's enthusiasm for and understanding of their content. Ravindra, an authority on the world's spiritual traditions, shows how the Yoga Sutras relate to the practices of other traditions and are a practical guide to treading the Path in earnest. This book makes available to Western readers the theosophical insights of ancient India, which are fully harmonious with the ideas and ideals of modern Theosophy.


The editor also recognizes, as the best older revised spiritual book of last year, this:

Judge, William Quan. Echoes of the Orient: The Writings of William Quan Judge. Vols. 1 & 2, 2nd rev. ed. Comp. Dara Eklund. Pasadena, CA: Theosophical University Press, 2009. Pp. 700 & 600. Judge was a founding member of the Theosophical Society and, next to H.P.B., one of the most prolific of first-generation authors, despite his relative early death in 1896 at the age of not quite forty-five. Volume 1 includes articles from the magazine he edited, The Path, and his fantastic "Occult Tales," as well as an extensive biography and many illustrations. Volume 2 includes "Hidden Hints in The Secret Doctrine," his talks from the first World's Parliament of Religions, and the historically interesting "Faces of Friends." Both volumes benefit from the high standard of publication associated with the Theosophical University Press, as well as the meticulous and knowledgeable editing of Dara Eklund. This book contains basic and classic early writings of modern Theosophy.

Other highly recommended books of last year are these:

Gilchrist, Cherry. Russian Magic: Living Folk Traditions of an Enchanted Landscape. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2009. Pp. xiii + 188. H. P. Blavatsky was clearly influenced as a girl by Russia folk beliefs and legends. This book deals with the sort of thing she would have encountered while growing up.

LeShan, Lawrence. A New Science of the Paranormal: The Promise of Psychical Research. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2009. Pp. vii + 133. This book deals with one aspect of the Theosophical Society's third object from the standpoint of the methods followed by various branches of science.


Robertson, Robin. Indra's Net: Alchemy and Chaos Theory as Models for Transformation. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2009. Pp. xiii + 182. The second object of the Theosophical Society is to encourage comparative study, including sciences and religions from various cultures. This book does just that.

Tillery, Gary. The Cynical Idealist: A Spiritual Biography of John Lennon. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2009. Pp. xi + 202. From a working-class youth, through pop-stardom Beatle, to social activist and model for personal development, John Lennon was a spiritual inspiration to many.


Yet other notable books of last year are these:

Houston, Jean. The Hero and the Goddess: "The Odyssey" as Pathway to Personal Transformation. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2009, c. 1992. Pp. xviii + 470.

Lewis, Dennis. Breathe into Being: Awakening to Who You Really Are. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2009. Pp. xii + 115.

Miller, Lama Willa. Everyday Dharma: Seven Weeks to Finding the Buddha in You. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2009. Pp. ix + 297.

Quinn, Paul. Tarot for Life: Reading the Cards for Everyday Guidance and Growth. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2009. Pp. xiii + 344.

Smith, Andrew Phillip. A Dictionary of Gnosticism. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2009. Pp. xviii + 273.

Walker, Thomas. The Force Is with Us: The Higher Consciousness That Science Refused to Accept. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2009. Pp. xvii + 221.

Finally, for multilingual members and other polyglottal people, it might be noted that a book by John Algeo and Shirley Nicholson, The Power of Thought: A Twenty-First Century Adaptation of Annie Besant’s Classic Work, “Thought Power”, originally published by Quest in 2001, had three new other-language translations in 2009: Czech Síla myšlení (Bratislava: Eugenika), Russian Sila mysli (St. Petersburg: Ves' Publishing Group), and Swedish Tankens Kraft (Sundbyberg: Svenska teosofiska bokförlaget). Those were added to Portuguese Pensamento: O que é e como usar (São Paulo, Brazil: Editora Mercuryo, 2003) and an Indian edition of the English version (New Delhi: B. Jain Publishers, 2006).



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